Mayor Park Won-Soon, Dis­cusses His Back­ground In Hu­man Rights And Civil Ac­tivism

The Global Digest (English) - - Contents - By Staff Cor­re­spon­dent

In May 1975 Seoul City’s new mayor, 58 year old Park Won-soon, was ar­rested and im­pris­oned for four months af­ter join­ing a demon­stra­tion against Park Chung-hee’s mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. He had just en­tered Seoul Na­tional Univer­sity and was a fresh­man at the time of his ar­rest. Upon his re­lease he was for­bid­den to go back to the univer­sity cam­pus for sev­eral years. In an in­ter­view with the Global Di­gest on Mon­day 30th Jan­uary he ex­plained how his im­pris­on­ment shaped his com­mit­ment to Hu­man Rights and civil ac­tivism. He de­scribed how his ar­rest be­gan a jour­ney that saw him win the most im­por­tant non-na­tional elec­tion in South Korea on Oc­to­ber 26th 2011; the Seoul city may­oral race. In 1980 I passed the exam of Korean Bar As­so­ci­a­tion. So I trained to be a Hu­man Rights lawyer, very nat­u­rally. I de­fended many po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in the 1980s and the 1990s. At that time there were so many pris­on­ers of con­science; usu­ally they were politi­cians and labour­ers and stu­dents, even some artists. One day in 1987, around 1400 stu­dents were ar­rested in one night. This meant I was very pros­per­ous in terms of busi­ness. Of course it was free ser­vice I of­fered to de­fend them. Any­way, as a lawyer I was very busy de­fend­ing the stu­dents at that time.

In 1991 I de­cided to study more on Hu­man Rights, es­pe­cially in­ter­na­tional sit­u­a­tions. I set about study­ing for a diploma on an in­ter­na­tional course at Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics from 1991 to 1992. And I also spent over one year in Har­vard Law School as a vis­it­ing fel­low to Har­vard’s Hu­man Rights pro­grams. Even be­fore that I was par­tic­i­pat­ing in the es­tab­lish­ment of Lawyers for a Demo­cratic So­ci­ety, and I was play­ing an im­por­tant role. We, Lawyers for a Demo­cratic So­ci­ety, are called ‘Min­byun’ in Korean.

And then I es­tab­lished Peo­ple’s Sol­i­dar­ity for Par­tic­i­pa­tory Democ­racy (PSPD). Ac­cord­ing to the chang­ing sit­u­a­tion I was try­ing to fo­cus on the par­tic­i­pa­tion of peo­ple in the course of de­ci­sion mak­ing of the par­lia­ment and the ex­ec­u­tive and the ju­di­ciary. This was con­tribut­ing to and in­creas­ing how peo­ple could par­tic­i­pate in the or­di­nary course of de­ci­sion mak­ing. We had many de­part­ments, for ex­am­ple ‘watch for congress’, ‘watch for ju­di­ciary’, ‘watch for the ad­min­is­tra­tion’ and so on and we were es­pe­cially cam­paign­ing against cor­rup­tion. We in­tro­duced many pack­ages to the le­gal sys­tem to en­cour­age trans­parency and add to the strug­gle against cor­rup­tion.

And then in 2000, I es­tab­lished an­other or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Beau­ti­ful Foundation, a fund­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion for the civil so­ci­ety. Then in 2002 I es­tab­lished an­other or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Beau­ti­ful Store, which is a sec­ond hand char­ity shop chain. And also in 2006 I es­tab­lished the Hope In­sti­tute which is a think tank from the per­spec­tive of civil so­ci­ety. The mayor laughs when he says that “as you can imag­ine I was al­ways mak­ing a new or­gan­i­sa­tion. And at last I left to run for Mayor of Seoul in 2011.” His back­ground in Hu­man Rights and civil ac­tivism seems to have played a de­ci­sive role in his elec­tion vic­tory. Just two months be­fore the

elec­tion Mr. Park was re­garded as an out­sider. How­ever, as an anti-es­tab­lish­ment, in­de­pen­dent fig­ure he pre­sented him­self as the ‘cit­i­zens’ can­di­date’ and com­fort­ably beat Na Kyung-won, the rul­ing con­ser­va­tive Grand Na­tional Party’s can­di­date. In the end the share of votes was 53% to 46%. The pri­mary op­po­si­tion, the Demo­cratic Party, did not en­ter a can­di­date to run against Mr. Park. Park’s sup­port­ers claim his win is a vic­tory for peo­ple power and re­flects vot­ers’ dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment.

They ar­gue his vic­tory is an in­di­ca­tion of grow­ing dis­il­lu­sion­ment in the pres­i­dency of Lee Myung-bak which has been plagued with eco­nomic is­sues. De­spite a healthy econ­omy and a ris­ing GDP there is a widen­ing gap be­tween the rich and the poor. Many feel the coun­try’s eco­nomic gains are not be­ing dis­trib­uted fairly amongst the pop­u­la­tion. South Korea scores poorly in OECD mea­sures of rel­a­tive wealth; in 2011 the amount of South Korean house­holds liv­ing be­low the poverty line ex­ceeded 3 mil­lion for the first time and it has been re­ported that the coun­try’s per­cent­age of poor is dou­ble the OECD av­er­age. There are wide­spread con­cerns about ris­ing liv­ing costs and de­clin­ing job se­cu­rity; high univer­sity tu­ition fees and the ris­ing cost of ed­u­ca­tion; as well as youth un­em­ploy­ment.

Some sup­port­ers have called Mr. Park ‘Seoul’s first wel­fare mayor’ and he ex­plained why so­cial wel­fare is so im­por­tant for the city: “I think wel­fare can also be in­te­grated as one of the Hu­man Rights. As you can imag­ine Korea has been very suc­cess­ful in terms of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and as a re­sult of rapid eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment Korea has be­come a mem­ber of the OECD; the sale of ex­ports is be­com­ing so big, and we are around the tenth great­est in the world. In that sense, eco­nomic sense, we have been very suc­cess­ful but, I think, the growth even in eco­nomic sense can­not be sus­tain­able with­out the pro­tec­tion of Hu­man Rights. It also means that in Korea so­cial wel­fare was rel­a­tively dis­missed and in terms of the Hu­man De­vel­op­ment In­dex (HDI), recorded by the United Na­tions De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme (UNDP), Korea is still lower than other OECD coun­tries and the wel­fare ex­penses in gov­ern­ment ex­pen­di­ture are also the low­est among OECD mem­bers. In that sense I think it is very ur­gent for Korean so­ci­ety to em­pha­sise the im­por­tance of so­cial wel­fare.”

“Be­fore the elec­tion there was a de­bate on the is­sue of so­cial wel­fare, es­pe­cially the uni­ver­sal­ity of Hu­man Rights idea in so­cial wel­fare is­sues. At the time the de­bate was free meals for ele­men­tary and mid­dle school stu­dents. The rul­ing party and the mayor were ar­gu­ing that the free meals can­not be sup­plied, but the op­po­si­tion party and the grass­roots civil so­ci­ety were op­pos­ing them, be­cause the free meal is one of the ba­sic rights of all stu­dents. This was one mo­ment to change the Seoul Metropoli­tan Gov­ern­ment and also the to­tal so­ci­ety. Within only a short pe­riod the rul­ing party has changed their at­ti­tude be­cause they had been de­feated; they found pub­lic opin­ion also chang­ing, so so­cial wel­fare is­sues are re­ally chang­ing Korean so­ci­ety in gen­eral, I can say.”

The de­bate around free school meals was a con­tro­ver­sial and emo­tional is­sue for many. Mr. Park’s pre­de­ces­sor, Oh Se-hoon, vol­un­tar­ily re­signed from the post of Seoul mayor in Au­gust af­ter los­ing a ref­er­en­dum on the sub­ject. Mayor Park served out the re­main­ing two years of the former mayor’s term.

Mr. Park ex­plained that there has been a sig­nif­i­cant change in the Hu­man Rights is­sues fac­ing the coun­try: “I think the item of Hu­man Rights is al­ways chang­ing ac­cord­ing to the change and trans­for­ma­tion of the so­ci­ety. In the 1970s and 1980s the main prob­lems in Hu­man Rights was tor­ture and po­lit­i­cal rights abuse. It was car­ried out by gov­ern­ment with a form of sys­tem­atic abuse. But since the 1990s the forms of Hu­man Rights abuse have be­come very di­verse, in­clud­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal rights, right to hous­ing, dis­crim­i­na­tion, women, all tak­ing weight in the list of Hu­man Rights. Es­pe­cially af­ter the late 1990s when there were so many mi­grant work­ers com­ing to Korean so­ci­ety. Nowa­days even the Hu­man Rights of the mi­grant work­ers or the im­mi­grant women who get mar­ried to Korean hus­bands are be­com­ing very im­por­tant. So in that sense, nowa­days there is not only the one is­sue but so many is­sues be­com­ing aroused sur­round­ing Hu­man Rights.” He went on to ex­press his re­grets that Seoul and South Korea are not as multi-cul­tur­ally open as they could be due to the mind­set of Korean peo­ple: “They say that Korea has be­come a multi­na­tional or cul­tur­ally di­verse so­ci­ety but in truth I think Korea is still far from be­ing a mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety be­cause the men­tal­ity of the peo­ple, of gen­eral peo­ple, can­not be changed. The pol­icy mak­ers in gov­ern­ment are still think­ing and they are try­ing to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for the mi­grant work­ers or the newly ar­rived women who have got mar­ried to Korean hus­bands. I think to be a re­ally multi-cul­tural so­ci­ety we should guar­an­tee that new­com­ers can en­joy their own na­tive cul­ture and cul­tural back­ground. So I think my opin­ion for the new­com­ers is to en­joy their own cul­ture. And also that they can sur­vive and be in­de­pen­dent, even eco­nom­i­cally to be­gin to start their own busi­ness with their own cul­tural back­ground, for ex­am­ple Viet­namese house­wives, they can be­gin their own restau­rant, Viet­namese restau­rant, or they can start up their own travel agency for Kore­ans to en­joy trips to Viet­nam. Some­thing like that, one small idea. In that sense I will make some ex­per­i­ments to make the Korean so­ci­ety more open to new­com­ers.”

He con­tin­ues, “In the 21st Cen­tury I think the dis­tinc­tion

be­tween the for­eign­ers and non-for­eign­ers has be­come less im­por­tant. So, they can say that the United States is the coun­try of im­mi­grants, but I think that it is not much dif­fer­ent in Euro­pean coun­tries. In Asia also we are be­com­ing in­ter­na­tional so­ci­eties. So in that sense I’m try­ing to pro­tect and guar­an­tee new­com­ers from other coun­tries that they can en­joy, can ful­fill their ca­pac­ity, their po­ten­tial in Korean so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially in Seoul.”

Fi­nally the mayor of Seoul city ex­plained that the over­ar­ch­ing goal of his term as mayor will be to de­velop a way of work­ing that in­cludes more peo­ple in the po­lit­i­cal life of the city: “There can be many things to change but I think the most im­por­tant is to change the philo­soph­i­cal ground. For ex­am­ple, one item can be strength­en­ing good gov­er­nance – we can guar­an­tee to have more op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple to be in­volved in the pol­icy mak­ing process. So in that sense I’m al­ways em­pha­sis­ing to pub­lic ser­vants, say­ing that we can­not do every­thing alone but we should co­op­er­ate with the many cit­i­zens and grass­roots or­gan­i­sa­tions to make our so­ci­ety, to make our de­vel­op­ment more sus­tain­able, through par­tic­i­pa­tion, gov­er­nance, and self-reg­u­la­tion. This is one of the main things we should fo­cus on.”

Mayor Park Won-soon(C) with other In­ter­na­tional May­ors

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